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Broken Mechanics

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Lead designer Matt here! And no, this isn't about the Ascendant Dragon Monk or the College of Eloquence. Instead the subject of today's game design analysis will be a little bit of homebrewing I had to do for a recent livestream.

Over on Tales of Initiative I'm the game master for a livestream called "Tales Does Tales", which follows our cosmic horror inspired playthrough of the dungeon crawl anthology "Tales From the Yawning Portal". Last week was the climactic battle against Belak the Outcast, the primary antagonist of the first dungeon in the book (spoilers ahead for those that care), and an interesting rules interaction came up.

Well, I say "interaction", but really it was more of a gap in the rules. One of Belak's helpers is an enthralled fighter named Sir Braford who wields a magical sword called Shatterspike. The important thing to note about this weapon is that it always scores a critical hit when it targets an object, and the adventure's combat tactics say that Sir Braford uses the weapon to destroy the gear of the player characters. But this runs into the aforementioned rules gap; namely, there are no rules for targeting a piece of equipment being held or wielded by an opponent in combat.

So how should this element of the combat be run???

Destroying a PC's items in a tense boss battle can be extremely scary, especially when it's something they might not even consider to be an option. Part of the fairness (and fun) in D&D combat is that the sides are roughly symmetrical in what they can do. Everyone has (almost) the same action economy, the same general principles behind what they can do (like how spells and attacks work), etc. Springing a previously-unknown mechanic on a group can feel like an un-fun "gotcha!" moment, so I wanted this to feel like something that was unique, made the enemy feel appropriately cool, but didn't leave the party feeling "attacked" in an out-of-character way.

Chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master's Guide

First stop was The Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG), specifically the chapter on optional rules and homebrew guidance. I knew it included some extra action options for combat and I was hoping to find "attack a held object" in there. I wasn't that lucky, but it wasn't a total whiff either.

Here are the additional combat actions the chapter includes:

  • Climb onto a Bigger Creature. Exactly what it says on the tin. This is a really cool mechanic and I highly recommend including it in your game, but it's not actually helpful for our purposes.

  • Disarm. Another "does what it says" option, but this one is way more pertinent. More on the mechanics later.

  • Mark. This is a neat option that allows melee characters to be a little more interactive with their attacks in a multi-enemy fight. Give it a look if you want martials to have more interaction in combat, but it's not what I need for this.

  • Overrun. A cool way to move through an enemy's space. Great thing to include if you enjoy tactical combat and want positioning to really matter.

  • Shove Aside. A really simple rules addition to the normal Shove action. There's probably a ton of folks that are already doing this without ever having read the DMG.

  • Tumble. The Dexterity (Acrobatics) version of Overrun.

Also, right after all these action options, there's an interesting Hitting Cover mechanic that outlines how ranged attacks against a target in cover might strike the cover on a miss. This could be interesting (and align with our needs) from the standpoint that it turns misses into damage against the environment.

The Disarm Action

Disarm was the closest to my desired "attack enemy equipment" type action. In fact it's really stinking close - you use your attack to target a held object, but instead of trying to destroy it you're trying to knock it out of your opponent's grasp.

Here's the exact rules wording for the Disarm action:

A creature can use a weapon attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target’s grasp. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item. The attacker has disadvantage on its attack roll if the target is holding the item with two or more hands. The target has advantage on its ability check if it is larger than the attacking creature, or disadvantage if it is smaller.

Overall this is a great starting point for the desired "attack enemy equipment" action. That second paragraph doesn't really make sense to apply since it's encapsulating the differences in strength (size) between two opponents along with the increase in difficulty for an object to be dropped if it's in two hands. But none of that applies since we are literally just trying to attack the object itself, so it doesn't matter how strong the wielder is or how many hands are holding it.

Hitting Cover

This is a really neat optional rule for those looking to add a bit more crunch to tactical combat:

When a ranged attack misses a target that has cover, you can use this optional rule to determine whether the cover was struck by the attack. First, determine whether the attack roll would have hit the protected target without the cover. If the attack roll falls within a range low enough to miss the target but high enough to strike the target if there had been no cover, the object used for cover is struck. If a creature is providing cover for the missed creature and the attack roll exceeds the AC of the covering creature, the covering creature is hit.

Not only does this make cover a potentially depleting resource (since the misses it cause would result in the cover being damaged or destroyed), but it also increases the danger of shooting into a melee. If, for example, you attempt to fire a longbow at a target that has cover because your ally is standing in front of them, this rule could result in your miss hitting your ally! Very cool option for those wanting more dynamic cover while also mitigating some of the power of ranged damage builds.

But is it useful for our "attack enemy equipment" action? .. maybe!

If the object you're attacking is a shield, one could see utilizing this same "above unshielded AC, below shielded AC" logic to determine whether or not a strike hit someone's shield. But then again maybe not. It's certainly extra crunchy (maybe too crunchy), but it's also more useful for incidental contact with the shield. If a creature is trying to strike the shield on purpose, then why would rolling too-high (high enough to hit a creature through the shielded AC) be a bad thing?

Object Stats

A quick note on rules that do exist: object statistics. Specifically AC and HP for objects - how hard it is to hit an unattended object well enough to do damage, and then how much damage that object can take before it breaks.

Guidelines for these stats exist in Chapter 8 of the DMG. You'll see how I incorporated these existing rules below.

How I Did It

On top of all these other concerns about fairness and good mechanics, there was one other goal I had: achieving the "oh sh*t!" moment.

This is what I call those moments in a game where the enemy suddenly busts out the thing that makes them dangerous, terrifying, or both. And I love them. They are one of the reasons I enjoy being a Game Master. Seeing players experience that shock, then bounce back and create a new strategy to win the day in the face of that fear is an amazing thing to experience. I knew I wanted that for this boss battle, and I felt like using Shatterspike's unique mechanic was a great way to achieve that.

Here are the mechanics that I decided to go with for determining if the attack was a hit or miss against a piece of gear:

Attack Enemy Equipment A creature can use a weapon attack to attack an object being held or worn by a target. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest and exceeds the AC of the object being attacked, it deals damage to the object.

I primarily utilized the mechanics for the Disarm action to implement this. It seemed the most fair and would generally adhere to first principles of D&D 5e (contested rolls are the bread and butter for "do something unexpected" type things).

However it didn't quite hit the sweet spot in terms of delivering that surprise moment, so I decided to add a first-turn wrinkle. The first time Sir Braford did this in combat, I would have the attack roll happen normally, but simply deal damage to the object in question if I hit the target's AC. That way the cool thing would happen, a shocking moment in combat would be delivered, and then both players and their characters would be expecting this new tactic and could react appropriately (using the mechanics outlined above).

As for the AC and HP of the items, I decided that for level 3 characters their adventuring gear would be AC 15 (matching the AC of your typical wooden objects) and would have 10 HP - the amount recommended for a small, resilient object. That makes sense for gear that's meant to be used on an adventure. And in the case of weapons being attacked, I didn't use the Iron / Steel AC since the attack could instead target the handles or other components of the weapons that aren't made of metal.

If you'd like to see how it turned out, you can watch the episode here!

(You can skip to here if you just want to see the moment in question.)

How would you do this?

Would you allow the Attack Enemy Equipment action at your table? Would you implement the mechanics differently?

Leave a comment or hit us up on social media!

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